Mary Jo Strauss, Artist
Her mediums: oil, acrylics, charcoal, pencil
Her website: maryjofinearts.com
Human hair was Mary Jo’s artistic medium-of-choice for 30 years. She didn’t card human hair like wool and knit animal sweaters; the hair was always attached to the human. Instead, she used her design skills, color sensibilities and shears to transform the coiffure of thousands of Manhattan women for nine years, and then for hundreds of Steamboat, Colorado, women as proprietress of “The Gallery” for 20 years.
Mary Jo retired from being a hair dresser in 2013 and currently lives with her electrical engineer husband, Hans, in New River, Arizona, on a dirt road that climbs past their home and meanders up the base of Apache Peak. Raw desert views surround and city noises do not penetrate, just silence marked by the occasional rooster crow, propeller plane or all-terrain vehicle. Hans, originally from Norway, can often be found in the yard, spreading gravel, and building walls and botanical gardens designed by Mary Jo. Their shared vision has manifested in little niches of delight.
Mary Jo sketched and painted for most of her life. At age 8, she was invited to attend a summer program at the Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio, where she was born and raised. “I was naturally drawn to painting,” Mary Jo said, “and always gravitated toward painting models in magazines like Seventeen and Glamor. My paternal grandfather was a chemist who painted portraits and landscapes as his creative outlet. When I visited, he’d play Opera and we’d discuss the art of painting.” Mary Jo had seven brothers and sisters, so support for her passion from her parents wasn’t strong, even with a grandfather who painted.
Mary Jo bought her first paint-by-number set at age 12. She saved the paint and brushes so she could paint on paper plates or on paper her father brought home from his paper salesman job. In the 6th grade, she won a safety poster contest, beating all other entries from across Dayton, Ohio, and was awarded $15, in addition to having her poster printed. Affirmations of her artistic talents continued over the years, with the exception of an episode with a nun in her Sophomore year of high school.
The assignment was to paint a landscape picture. “I actually painted from a photograph I had taken,” Mary Jo said. “My instructor, a nun, saw the photo on my desk, took my painting up to the front of the room and ripped it up in front of the entire class. She then said, ‘Mary Jo will grow up to be a convict and will be thrown in jail because she copied from a photo.’”
“In that instant,” Mary Jo continued, “I knew I had to get out of that school. I forged the principal’s signature on some paperwork so they would expel me, which they did. When I switched to a public school, the art teacher encouraged me and I ended up winning an award in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a sculpture. He made me realize I could actually go to college even though the Catholic school insisted I wasn’t college material.”
Mary Jo studied painting at Ohio State for two years and later returned to college to study interior design. She also dreamed of becoming an architect, and a few years later found herself in jobs that used her creativity. She worked with a Denver architectural firm and was being trained in lettering and rendering. She also worked for a silk-screening company designing t-shirts. Eventually, while Mary Jo moved between Steamboat, Colorado, New York City and Scottsdale, she went to beauty school in New York.
“I was lucky to be hired at Henri Bendel,” said Mary Jo about the iconic 120-year-old women’s speciality store. “I worked at the salon of Jean Louis David in Henri Bendel. I received top-notch experience for nine years. It’s a famous store with famous clients, so working there was always interesting and fun. Also, in those days, Studio 54 was the place to be after hours in New York, and as a hairdresser we were always welcome to come right in.”
Life happened while Mary Jo was making other plans. She married, her son Tyler, and later divorced. Back in Steamboat, Colorado, she opened “The Gallery.” Why call a hair salon a gallery? “I had an art studio in the building and sold my paintings. However, within six months I was so busy with hair styling I quit doing art, except for the occasional sketch.”
Mary Jo may have quit doing “traditional” art during those years, yet it’s clear she simply channeled her artistic talents into being a hair designer… and many women benefitted!
There are a lucky few of us New Riverites who have the privilege of wearing Mary Jo’s artwork on our heads these days. Hans installed a professional salon sink and stool in her art studio, enabling Mary Jo to continue her hair artistry. It’s like going to a Henri Bendel’s hair dresser, but at a much lower price and only a short walk through our neighborhood.
In recent years, Mary Jo has created several large paintings, some of them multi-panels. A few pieces of her work are exhibited at Easy Street Galleria in Carefree, Arizona. In fact, one of her 8′ x 4′ foot paintings was chosen from among the gallery’s many offerings to be exhibited on the exterior of the gallery. One client commissioned a 9′ x 5′ foot painting, which Hans helped her build and install in the client’s Cayman Islands home.
Hans is as much a creative partner to Mary Jo’s painting career as he is her life and business partner. He moved to Steamboat to help Mary Jo when she started her wholesale company, Rodeo Cosmetics, and two retail stores, Cowgirls and Angels, and Yippie-I-O.
Hans builds the framework for many of her paintings and helps coat some of them with epoxy. He even encouraged her to go to Bali for two months in 2013 to study with an abstract master painter, Carja. Mary Jo had just retired from styling hair and was ready to get serious about painting. She ended up extending her Bali trip an extra month after adopting three baby monkeys and helping to raise them until they were placed in good homes.
Carja is known for his huge abstract paintings. “He didn’t teach us how to paint,” Mary Jo said. “He taught us how to paint from within. He’d tell us to close our eyes and mix paint colors, and feel it. He gave me permission to let go of rules and open up to painting from my emotions. He told me to just paint, every day if possible. ‘You’re style will come,’ he told me, ‘and you’ll be selling your work within three years.’”
Mary Jo began selling her paintings soon after returning to New York.
Is Mary Jo a Feminist? Maybe not a politically active feminist, but her work has always centered on helping women feel good about themselves, and not just on the surface. While making and selling women’s beauty products, and styling hair, Mary Jo mastered the art of connecting with her clients on topics that matter. Topics that nurture the heart and mind, then work their way outward. People find it extremely easy to relate to Mary Jo and often feel immediately comfortable with her.
It’s no coincidence that from an early age, Mary Jo was compelled to draw women. She has three examples of early sketched portraits framed in her guest bedroom, and her latest project was inspired by the 2016 presidential election results. “I was at an appointment the day after the election and the technician, who was African-American, told me her little girls had asked at breakfast that morning, ‘Does this mean they will bring back lynching?’ She and I both cried, and I knew I had to portray in my art that emotional state of women and minorities. I went straight to my studio and started painting.”
Her focus on women has come full circle.
Mary Jo is painting the new women’s series on textured wallpaper given to her by her brother. She leaves the side edges raw. “I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to paint over the textures, but I was drawn to the paper for this series as a representation of life’s complexity. Plus, my brother, who gave me the paper, is a member of the LGBTQ community, and I’m painting to give expression to all minorities and groups often ignored or, worse, vilified.”
Mary Jo’s well seems bottomless as she focuses outward, listening like the professional she is after years of bonding with her clients. But Mary Jo has a rich inner life, the source of her creativity. And that’s what we’re here to talk about!
Q: How do you describe your creative drive?
A: There’s a special feeling I get when I’m connected to my art. Like a high, or an adrenaline rush. I like to get some good music going and just lose time and get into the space. It’s the same feeling I get when I do something for someone else. I’m inspired by photographs and live entertainment. My response to learning more about elephants as endangered species was to paint them. My current project, a series of charcoal and oil paintings of women, came from watching Trump disparage and objectify women. My portraits emphasize the humanity in women.
Q: How have your life lessons contributed to your art?
A: I started out in life being a people pleaser and wanting to be loved. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be good at something, and that I was a survivor. It made me strong and brought me to this moment where art is central to my life.
Q: What is some good advice you can give creative people trying to start their own art thing?
A: Get a sketchbook and keep it with you, place it on the night stand next to your bed. Sketch before you fall asleep and when you wake up, and any time during the day. Close your eyes and sketch. Sketch your feelings. The more you create, the more comfortable you’ll become creating.
Q: Who influences your art style the most?
A: My brother’s partner, Sylvan, was an amazing artist before he died of AIDS. He taught me how to use leafing with gold, bronze or silver, and I still use leafing today. I also appreciate Georgia O’Keefe and never fully appreciated how similar our styles are until I moved West and began painting cow skulls and flowers.